VISITS TO THUNDER RANCH

I've been to Thunder Ranch three times so far, Defensive Handgun 2, H. I. T. (High Intensity Tactical), and Defensive Handgun 3. Some of these photos are from 2, some from H. I. T., some from 3. I'll be going again in the fall for the Pre-1900 course.

Thunder Ranch is in God's Own Country, the Texas Hill Country. It's not close to anything. If you want any civilization at all, you stay in Kerrville and drive over 40 miles each way. There are closer places, but you have to be wanting to get away from it all for real. The YO Ranch, for example has not only no TVs in rooms, but no PHONES in the rooms. We tried the YO once and discovered that. My partner in crime is an Internet Web Master by profession, so this was untenable. Too bad. If you want to stay in a room with a stuffed longhorn head on the wall, that's it.

Thunder Ranch is simply the finest firearms training facility available to civilians in the U.S., probably the world.

This photo was taken when Peter Dayton and I went to DHG 3 in his new S430. It did make the long drive back to the motel du jour easier. The Xenon headlights were especially useful in the dark with deer on the road. The navigation system worked wonderfully, and everything about that car was impressive. We managed to NOT use it for the shooting from vehicles stages. (If ever there were a reason for rental cars, that's it. I used my new ML430 at H. I. T., and the new car porter kept handing me brass every time he washed the truck for months.)

 

Clint Smith is the legendary director of Thunder Ranch. He was a Marine in Vietnam for 2 tours. In the Marine Corps a tour was 13 months. In the Army it was 12 months. In the Navy Seals a tour was 1 day short of 6 months. (Jesse Ventura has two tours in Vietnam, but he spent less time there than I did in one). He has a Purple Heart or two, an occupational hazard of combat Marines. Then he was a cop, with both precision rifle and firearms instructor duty. He was Operations Manager at Gunsite when I was there in 1982. Then he became director of training for Heckler and Koch and founded International Training Consultants to teach small police forces gunfighting skills. Then, in 1993, his backer bought Thunder Ranch, and it was soon built up with first class facilities, paved roads, and one-of-a-kind simulators. Construction has been going on every time I've been to Thunder Ranch. It's very impressive. I don't know if it's intended to make money or not. If it is, then the reinvestment is staggeringly impressive.

Clint's first morning lecture is unforgettable. Clint has a rapid-fire delivery, a wry, dry sense of humor, and a way with words which is unique. He is obviously quite earnest, and almost desperate to get his points across. He seems to be talking 2 pages ahead of your notes. There's no fluff in the lecture. Instead, he's cramming 20 lb. of material into a 10 lb. container. He's making memorable sound bites faster than you can copy them down. He's also not at all reticent to say what's on his mind. The last time I was there he took time to complain about some previous students (paying customers), calling at least one an idiot. He told that the guy was complaining that his Thunder Ranch Special didn't work. It seems he had put in a guide rod and a shock buffer. Clint, like most instructors who aren't gunsmiths, doesn't want anything on the gun which isn't necessary. I can assure you, if you needed any from me, TR Specials work. Every one I've seen worked. There were several at DHG 3. Clint, marketing disaster that he is, wouldn't put his name on it if it didn't. The marketing disaster comment isn't meant to be derogatory. He says the same thing himself. The Pro Shop there has very little stuff, no left handed holsters, for example. I called once to order a holster through them to get the neat TR crest on it. They referred me to the maker. Of course, we've seen a school go virtually bankrupt which was run by a marketeer instead of a dedicated, zealous instructor. I don't expect Clint to be a marketing guru. I expect him to be a shooting guru. He is. There are schools I've been to I've taken some of it with a grain of salt. At TR I take everything I hear as being The Real Stuff.

SOUND BITES:

"I don't want to kill my client base."

"Not politically correct? Oh, yeah, that's one of my strong points, political correctness."

"Tactical Rules: Always Cheat. Always Win."

"I never had a fight, military or as a police officer, where a PACT timer was present."

"Describe the school? 1. Avoidance. 2. Manipulation."

"I turned 50 and my warranty ran out."

"A handgun isn't supposed to be comfort-ABLE. It's supposed to be comfort-ING."

"Shoot until you win or until you are empty. An empty gun is not bad luck. It is only part of a fight."

And Heidi, his cute blonde wife had one good one, "When a bullet goes downrange, there's a lawyer attached."

 

THE RANGES:

There's a "square" range appropriate for every weapon. There are no yard lines on the ranges because there aren't any on the street. You work from contact range to wa-a-a-y back. Proximity deletes skill, the instructors will repeat, so the goal of many exercises is to get out of the hole, the area people get killed in. M and M. Maximize distance. Minimize yourself as a target. It makes sense. If you're skilled at shooting, you want to be out of the range of your opponant's skills. Chances are he hasn't been to Thunder Ranch or Gunsite, etc. You can't count on him being a shooting moron. In the Miami Massacre the bad guys practiced a lot and shot very well. But you can count on your skills being good at longer ranges, and the odds are in your favor the further away you can get.

This was a backing-up exercise on the last day of DHG 3. Starting from various positions, such as flat on your back, you shot, got up, shot, backed up, shot, covered your partner, talked to the assailant, to your partner, and sometimes to yourself. (These range photos were taken by instructor Walt Rausch, which I appreciate. Usually the instructors have too much to do to take pictures for students. He had a short window of opportunity which closed soon, and he was busy helping a student.)

The targets move. Some wobble. Some turn. Some turn and wobble Ques are always visual, not a buzzer or a command. Bad guys don't carry shot timers. This shows a reload with the slide locked back. Unlike Gunsite in the '80s when I was last there, getting the slide locked back is not a no-no. "Not good, not bad, just reality," says Clint a lot. In a high stress shooting you will not count your shots, and you will lock the slide back. Been there. Done that.

It should probably be noted that I'm not pointing down the magazine with my index finger as I was taught by all my instructors. This is not a failure on their part. The mag carrier I use holds the mag firmly in place, and I can get it out quicker with a firmer grasp. It doesn't slow me down, though, as I can reload faster than most. Eyes are down range at the target, and partner Peter Dayton is covering me. I know this because I've said, "Cover me, Peter," and he's responded, "covering."

 

None of the clothing here is an affectation. The knee and elbow pads are virtually mandatory. We were down in the gravel a lot. That's where the fight starts, after the bad guy knocks you on your ass. The cap keeps brass from getting stuck between my shooting glasses and my eyebrows.* The bandana keeps brass from going down my collar. The thin, stereo electronic earmuffs are comfortable and let me hear what's going on. One morning we heard "rack-rack" behind us, and the entire class turned. A student was switching guns at his range bag instead of at the fiddle table. Clint heard it, too, and read the riot act to the malefactor. When he was finished, there was no doubt another mistake like that would result in the student's leaving the course, tuition refunded. There has never been an accidental shooting at TR, and Clint likes it that way. (See the sound bite above.)

*Clint makes a point of telling you to ignore brass in the clothing. He doesn't want anyone dancing around trying to clear it because the muzzle gets out of control. One special operations unit was there for training. A team member didn't handle brass down the collar well, and the team leader threw him off the team on the spot. "Would you want him next to you in a firefight?" he said to the rest of the team.

WHAT TO BRING: Summer--bring a Camelback. You will have trouble drinking enough water. Wearing it helps. You'll need a practical holster, of course. The one shown above is a Galco Original Concealable. Elsewhere you'll see a Milt Sparks SS II. I had an injury which made the SS II uncomfortable, and this was an alternative. You'll need every working magazine you own probably. If they don't work, leave them at home. I've found the new design Wilson 8 rounders to be the best. The old ones and everyone else's 8 rounders either don't lock the slide back or allow double feeds sometimes. (New springs cure the former in old Wilsons, which never seemed to do that with SWCs but did with FMJRN). It goes without saying you'll need a gun which works. You'll spend a lot of time on malfunction clearances. In DHG 3 you do a lot of them with a PVC sleeve over one arm so you have to do them one handed. You don't need any extraneous ones. At DHG 2 I saw a lot of malfunctions, mostly Para-Ordnance, which have magazine problems (to the point the FBI went to single stacks for their SWAT teams after getting double stacks for their HRTs). Glocks work. Single stack 1911s work. H & Ks work, especially P-7s. I didn't see much of anyting else. By DHG 3 it was all 1911s and Glocks except for one S & W .40, which the guy badmouthed a lot. It was issued, not his choice. It worked, though, and he shot it magnificently.

The gun, holster, and mag carrier should be the one you use all the time. If you use an inside the pants holster, a Sparks 1AT shouldn't be substituted. I've worn both of the holsters I used under my coat on a daily basis. (I don't recommend the Galco, by the way. But it was available in a hurry when I needed it. I do recommend virtually everything by Milt Sparks, though.)

You'll need knee and elbow pads, ones you can put on and take off easily. Bring strong outdoor shoes. I totalled a Rockport walker on the rough surface.

Bring more ammunition than specified, with at least 25% being ball for the simulators. I took some 200 gr lswc/5.0 gr. Bullseye. loads and the rest 230 GR TMJ RN/4.7 gr. Bullseye, but after the first day just used the ball because I didn't want to have to strip magazines between range work and simulators. You will be going flat out from can to can't every day. THERE IS NO SPARE TIME. It's been described as "High Speed, Low Drag." Apt. In the first afternoon of H. I. T. We shot 600 rounds--each. In the last afternoon of DHG 3 I shot more. Bring full charge loads. You need to be controlling recoil just as you will with your carry load. Expect to lose a lot of brass. I lost 800 rounds or so. Peter Dayton came back with a surplus because he and another guy were picking up brass when the rest of us were too @#$*&! exhausted to move for 5¢ a piece brass hidden in the gravel. One guy was whining that he wanted his "special" brass back. Won't happen. Consider it part of the price of tuition. I had a lot of new Starline brass but kept my mouth shut. You'll be lucky to pick up an equivalent amount, and some of that will be .40 S & W or 9 mm. I picked up way too much FC 98 which isn't really reloadable because the primer pockets are too damn small, even if swaged.

Bring stuff to clean your weapon(s) at night in the room without making the room uninhabitable. My normal ammo can of Brake Clean wouldn't travel well, and spraying Gun Scrubber in the room isn't kosher. So reverted to military gun cleaning techniques. I had a lot of rags, patches, and Break Free, with spares of everything, so I needed nothing. Forget one spare and General Murphy rules.

Bring 3 or 4 Sure Fire Combat Lights and spare batteries. Batteries are good for 1 hour use or so, and you'll have the lights on a lot on the low light exercises. Good cop shops like 21st Century Hard Armor sell batteries in bulk for $3-4 instead of $7 each. I finished one night with all three lights dead.

Chapstick. Trust me. Chapstick. Ditto Baby Powder or talc. Sunblock. Definitely.

Bring your own lunch. You can't go anywhere for lunch. Fruit, liquids, peanut butter, bread, that sort of thing. You'll be hot, nervous, and tired. You don't need anything heavy.

 

Most of the work is done in teams. Peter Dayton, a champion shooter and LFI Instructor, was an excellent partner. He was almost disgustingly gung ho and cheerful. He could be counted on to not do anything stupid, and he talked to the target and to me as needed. "Gover me, Curt." "Covering." "Clear." Etc. When backing up we would try to stay together, of course. With him it was easy. I've paired with Peter at H.I.T. and DHG 3. Now, if I could just get him interested in Cowboy Action Shooting©, so he'd go to the Pre-1900 course...

 

 

 

 

 

Judging from my hand position and really bent knees, I would imagine this started from some uncomfortable position, hands on the ground, etc.

Good exercise.

That's a Wilson 10 round Bureaucrat magazine in the TR Special. The new ones work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Front sight, squeeze the trigger. Plan A first, body shots, then plan B, the head, or Plan C, the pelvic area. The targets were moving, wobbling, like real life. Head shots against the wobblers were difficult at first, but much easier by day 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CHARGER

These next photos courtesy of Peter Dayton.

At one of the ranges the targets attack you, sometimes pretty fast, sometimes in threes. The drill is to BACK THE HELL UP while shooting accurately and quickly. "Are you gonna shoot 'em FAST? Or are you gonna shoot 'em GOOD?" Clint asks many times.

Note I'm backing up as I draw. Getting a bunch of macho street fighters to backup is probably the hardest part of the course for the instructors. I never learned backing up in the Army.

 

 

 

 

BACK UP, BACK UP, BACKUP!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They station someone at the back of the platform so you don't back up into oblivion.

The instructor at H. I. T. would stop the charging target if you hit him in the head or pelvic area to encourage plan B and C usage. In DHG 3 they didn't seem to stop for anything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You also do this as a team, so you don't just use verbal compliance with the target, "Drop that knife!" etc. But you talk with your partner. "Cover me!" etc. In DHG 3 you do this starting seated at a table, or lying flat on your back, one arm in the PVC pipe, etc. There's also a mover range where the targets zip back and forth, behind cover, really quick. I figured I'd learned something when (finally) after a low light session there were 11 hits on the target from 11 fired. Tough exercise. Realistic. People don't usually stand still when you're shooting at them. They dodge and zig-zag.

THE SIMULATORS